Problems of the privileged

Kampala, Uganda

I remember once when my husband (then boyfriend), who had just come back from Kenya, sat listening to me patiently in NY as I went on and on about my problems. Oh, I don’t even remember what I was upset about. I am sure I didn’t get a job I really wanted, or a neighbor was being too noisy, or a friend and I had a horrible falling out, or perhaps I’d been sick and run down. He smiled at me and I asked him if he thought my problems were meaningless. This how he replied:

“No sweetheart, they are not meaningless to you. You must live in your world, stand squarely in your life, but your problems are problems of the privileged, remember that.”

Problems of the privileged.

Those words echo throughout me, pound against the inside of me daily.

It’s why, I think, so many people from my past don’t recognize me anymore. All their lips form the same words, “I’ve never seen you so happy. You seem so different.” And interestingly, I’ve never had more on my plate. I have a daughter to raise, a husband who travels, and no family or close friends around to help. I am changing careers and about to start school again full time. I am always tired and never seen to be able to do everything that needs to be done. What’s different is my perspective. It’s arguably the most important lesson I’ve learned by being an ex-pat and living all over the world. A lesson that started that day in NY, when my husband opened my eyes. Here’s what I see:

I met a Senegalese man the other day who asked me for directions. I didn’t recognize the name of the place he was looking for, so I asked to him to tell me what it was, as I know the neighborhood pretty well. He looked down sheepishly and said, “It’s a place that will feed you if you need to be fed.” I pointed him in the direction I thought I had seen such a place and asked him how he liked Rome, if he missed home. Yes, he missed home, was all he said.

Another person I’ve met is a woman who works at a café. Thirty-five and lovely, she’s not what you expect in an Italian with her sporting blond hair and blue-eyes. She hails from a small village up north and came to Rome seeking opportunity as well. She works six days a week, from 10 in the morning until just after midnight. She had a job in television, but couldn’t stomach the industry, so finds herself busing tables for a friend. She wants to have a child, but her salary is just too low and her husband isn’t working enough either and between the two of them they have no time to raise one anyway. For her the problems seem insurmountable.

Are her problems any less valid than his? Less real? Of course not. She’s looking at life through her own eyes and experiences and the culture that grew her. It’s all she knows. And he is living through his experience, walking the path laid out for him and hoping to divert it with strong will and a little luck.

I imagine it’s similar to those with a chronic illness who look upon those of us with health and feel impatience that we don’t wake every day and thank, whatever is we thank, for our good fortune.

Because we all have problems. It’s part of life. But I do remember always, as I was encouraged to do, and have learned by looking up instead of within, where mine fall on the scales.

16 thoughts on “Problems of the privileged

  1. How interesting that you wrote this post at the same time as I return from a trip to Mexico with my wife. We had intended on spending an anniversary cut off from the world of phones, email, internet and other mundane routines, only to find ourselves in a “resort” right next to poverty at such low levels, where a hand-to-mouth existence is something to strive for, because the alternative is just too miserable to fathom.

    It was certainly a reality check for me at the time – and it’s not like anyone could go through their life without knowing on some abstract level about the hardships that others face, but seeing it firsthand certainly puts life in perspective…

    It seems almost wanton now that we were concerned we wouldn’t have the funds to install new hardwood floors this summer as originally desired…at least we have a house over our head, a floor under our feet, and food in our bellies!

    Well-timed post!

    1. Jason,
      In the States I think we hide our poverty, push it to the edge so we can go about our daily routine and not have to really engage with it. In Uganda it was the opposite. Rich and poor side by side, so you had to step over one to get to the other. You can’t hide it or from it.
      Hope your holiday was nice and you did get to “disconnect” while connecting into the greater picture.

      1. Some photos from the trip are up on Facebook:

        2011

        Posted by Jason Anderson on Monday, May 9, 2011

  2. did you write this after reading my post yesterday? because it felt extremely appropriate. I just wrote a new post highlighting this one titled “a little perspective”. thanks for inspiring me this morning. 🙂

  3. Well said. Perspective is a powerful thing. Over the last few years I have been knocked to the ground several times (illness, unemployment, financial difficulties), but weathering each situation, sometimes over months, has taught me repeatedly what I am thankful for, where I’m strong. And there’s always someone else who is struggling even more. While I don’t exactly wish for “perspective,” I am grateful for it. I have a joy inside that I couldn’t have gained any other way.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I am just about to post something on this very topic. Been on my mind a lot recently. You seems to having the same thoughts as me these days; perhaps we are going through some interesting post third world thinking. Hmmm.

  5. Was literally just now watching my Sports Night 10th Anniversary DVDs for the umpteenth time while browsing old SN forums when I came across your link. Wow–what a change of pace! It’s wonderful to read about you in such a different way.

    It’s true that many of us are lucky to have the problems we do, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real problems. I’ve been living on the Thai-Burma border for a while now working with Burmese migrants. There are many different scales here as well, not only the differences between the NGO workers/volunteers and the Burmese, but within that population as well. Too many ex-pats feel they aren’t allowed to complain because they compare their problems to those of the migrants, but that’s really too simple. Very thoughtful post here, and I’m looking forward to reading more!

    1. Hi Nancy.
      The Thai-Burma border! I’d like to hear those stories.
      Yes, it’s why I wanted to write the post. Our lives must be real to us, “live in the world you live in,” my husband always says. But for me, seeing the bigger picture, I’ve never been able to fully fall back into my own. And for me, that has made me a happier person, one who walks in gratitude. I might still get upset if my coffee is cold, but now I’ll drink it anyway.

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